Friday, January 31, 2014

inside spiders

My mother and I have a huge difference of opinion.  I think spiders are a wonder of nature everywhere they are found.  My mother believes they were created to make wet spots on rolled-up newspapers.

While I was getting ready for bed, I glanced up into a corner of the bathroom and noticed a rather large spider -- inside an even larger cobweb -- going about her duty of catching the mosquitoes who have not succumbed to my serial Raid attacks.

There is a second mosquito trap in the corner of my living room.  But they are the only two spots where spiders have taken up long-term residence.  The living room web is pictured at the top.

Living in the tropics is nice.  Living with bugs is not.  Especially mosquitoes and no-see-ums -- those nasty little flying midges that leave welts larger than any mosquito has ever dreamt of.

I have an incredibly nice garden where I live.  It is cool and shady all year long.  But it is also sanctuary to things that go bite in the night.

The house has screens on all the windows.  They do not slow down the midges.  And there are gaps that allow more mosquitoes to slip in than illegal immigrants crossing the Rio Bravo.

An additional population slips in each week when Dora leaves the front door open to air out the place.  The insects accept it as our own little Open Borders policy.

Thus the Raid plug-ins.  The Raid air dispenser.  The endless artillery of Raid aerosol cans.  I am surprised that anything moves in this house.  Including me.

Even so, some of the insects manage to escape death by gas.  And that is where the two spiders come in.  Looking at their webs, they are certainly earning their rations. 

And, inside my house, the enemy of my enemy is my ally.

I have never discussed the spiders with Dora.  Maybe she is so fascinated with keeping the floor clean that she does not bother to look at the ceiling.  But those cobwebs have been there since I moved in four years ago.   Most likely, populated by several generation of spiders.

Or maybe she knows they are there and that they are welcome guests.  Anything that keeps me from welting up is going to have a place of honor in the house.

I wonder if either one Knows Peter Parker?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

travelin' man -- no more

Like Ricky Nelson, "I've made a lotta stops/All over the world."

After I looked at my spending for the past few years (moving to mexico? -- cost of living), I decided to cut back on my travel expenses for 2014.  By the time I wrote that post, I knew my big trip -- the three-month road trip through Central America -- was on hold.

Instead, of tooling through Central America, I decided four in-country tours with my favorite group, Mex-Eco Tours, would be a perfect substitute.

  • Tapalpa -- a Pueblo Mágico (one of Mexico's "Magic Towns") in the mountains between here and Guadalajara
  • Mexico City -- to see what I missed three years ago while I was exploding from both ends (dining in the halls of moctezuma)
  • Oaxaca -- my mother's favorite part of Mexico
  • Yucatán -- an opprtunity to feed my archaeology habit
So far, fate has not been kind.  I cancelled the Tapalpa trip to attend the first cross-cultural class this season.  And then Mex-Eco cancelled the Mexico City and Oaxaca tours because not enough people signed up.  Yucatán is still on for mid-February.

As soon as I return from southeast Mexico, I will fly north to Oregon to take care of some tax matters.  I had planned on staying up there for a few weeks.  But even that trip may now be modified.

My cousin, Dan, just wrote to inform me that he is available to start the Central America road trip in early March.  All I now need to discover is when I need to be in Oregon for taxes and back here to jump on the truck headed south.

When I thought that trip was postponed until later in the year, I agreed to join my cousin on a 22-day Mediterranean cruise in May and June.  Even though that trip is still in the ticketing stage, I am going to do it.  I have not traveled with him for seven years.  And, even with Honduras in my future, I will leave Italy on the agenda.

When I get back to Mexico, I hope to spend a bit of time in July and August in the highlands.  And then in late August I am off to London to start a cruise to northern France and northern Spain with my friends, Patti and Ken.  You undoubtedly remember her from pulling for patti.

And in December I will head off to a cruise to the Galapagos Islands with a friend from Melaque and her sister.

Will all of this happen?  Probably not.  Just as the Tapalpa, Mexico City, and Oaxaca trips did not happen.  Some of these may not either.

That is one reason I do not like to plan.  I have used Anne Lamott's quotation several times before, but it always strikes me as appropriate.  "If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans."

While I was wandering through San Patricio yesterday afternoon, I heard what I thought was folk music coming from one of the local restaurants that tourists love to call "authentic."  It sounded familiar.

Yes, it was folk music.  "Never Did No Wanderin'" from Christopher Guest's wicked send up of folk music -- A Mighty Wind.  In a Mexican restaurant?

I looked around to be certain Robert Rodriguez was not lurking behind a camera somewhere.  I was positive I was going to see a showdown between vampires and El Mariachi.

But it was just a sign for me to counterbalance Ricky Nelson's cheerful optimism with British satire.

Enjoy the snippet.  You may want to go find more.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

moving to mexico? -- the tribes of mexico

Anyone contemplating a move to Mexico should know the country is not culturally monolithic.  It is made up of many tribes.

Some people say the arrival of the Spanish tribe in 1519 was one of the most disruptive tribal events in Mexico's history.  That may be true.  But there are plenty of tribes that still wend their way through Mexico. 

From time to time, some of you may find it helpful to hear about The Tribes of Mexico.Let's start with the Magic Cleansing Tribe. 

Whenever the snows build up in northern climes, they migrate to Mexico for a week, a month, half a year, to seek a renewed spirit.

They are easy to recognize.  Often, because they have done their homework on the steps to spiritual rebirth.  And the group I encountered at dinner last night knew their stuff.

1.  Release the Real You.  The tribe grows weak with the outer shells that hide who we truly are.  All of that false politeness, voices at conversational level, concern for those around us, needs to be shed.  There is naught but the tribe.

Releasing the Real You is the simplest step of the journey.  Peyote is used by some tribes.  But the northern tribes find that the blessed tequila and cerveza (and it must be called forth by its spiritual name -- or it is just the stuff that couch potatoes use to toss at opposing teams on the magic picture box) are expert at strangling years of acquired social behavior.

By the time I joined the periphery of this tribe, they had successfully passed through the fires of doffing their northern nature.  Their Real You had been set loose like a five-year old in a crystal shop.

2.  Combat the forces of External Negativity.  There is always a danger that releasing the Real You will inspire the spirits of external negativity.  It is important to fend them off with the Sacred Smoke. 

In this case, a two-punch powerhouse -- both a pipe and cigarettes.  I could tell this tribe was not filled with novice acolytes.  The cloud surrounding them guaranteed death to the negative.

But something went wrong.  The negativity surrounding the tribe was not dispelled.  In fact, the smoke seemed to increase it.  To the point that a member not of the tribe approached and asked, in a polite manner (showing she had not yet released her Real Self), if the Sacred Smoke could be taken elsewhere.

The tribe knew she was just an illusion to be ignored.  And she was.

3.  Unleash your Spirit Guide.  While experiencing another truly authentic Mexican adventure in a local market, one of the tribe members overheard a crystal salesman from Ontario mention Colima dogs: "In ancient Mexico,
dogs were needed by their masters’ souls to help them safely through the underworld."  And wasn't there something about a spiritual coyote in those books that some guy named Castañeda wrote?

So, along to dinner came their spiritual guide -- Raulf.  A guide that had such great powers that a tribal member would loudly command him to "Speak!  Speak!"  Apparently, not realizing that spirit guides speak only to the tribe, not in restaurants filled with non-believers.

Raulf, noticing that the blessed tequila and Sacred Smoke had limited the awareness of the tribe, felt free to stick his Teutonic nose into the food on surrounding tables.  Undoubtedly, searching for a new tribe to guide.

Having cleansed their souls, the tribal leader felt it necessary to prove his spiritual superiority over the young lady waiting on their table by offering large amounts of money to purchase the metal communion cup he used to drink the blessed tequila.  When she refused, he was astounded that his tribal wealth did not subdue her.

Instead, the tribe gathered its belongings and stumbled into the darkness.  And those of us who remained, smiled, sighed a breath of relief, and took a breath of fresh air.

Cleansing can come in many ways in Mexico. 

* -- Some of you are already way ahead of me.  Yes.  Yes.  I know.  This is a blatant rip-off of Richard Lander's Gangs of San Miguel de Allende.  But what a great cover for me.  My plausible deniability is that Richard is moon-lighting in Melaque.  Of course, I would need an excuse for the reduced quality of his prose.  Maybe too much oxygen here on the beach. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

give peace a chance -- maybe one in a trillion

Political cartoonists (and other cynical types) are sharpening their pens as I write.

In yesterday's newspaper, I ran across a story that looked as if it could be the first draft of a Monty Python skit.

The cameras zoom in on the pope and two children standing in a window at the Vatican.  The pope prays for peace in Ukraine, and the children release two white doves as "a peace gesture."

As the children and the other innocents in the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square gaze into the sky, the refugees from Noah's ark soar up, up, up to spread the hope of peace in Ukraine.  Only to be attacked by a crow and a sea gull. 

A crow and sea gull.  I ask you -- who could have seen that coming?

Well, anyone who knows peace does not come from releasing prey in the presence of predators.  I fear the picture of doves being attacked by their natural foes is a more realistic symbol than the pope had wished.

The article ends with a rather desultory: "It was not clear what happened to the doves as they flew across Rome."

We know, though.  Even though we may wish that doves released by children are something other than an empty gesture, we know the chances are very great the doves will end up as links in the food chain.

The darting doves reminded me of another newspaper article I read recently.  One of those "where are they now" pieces.  This one was about Bob Packwood.  The former United States Senator from Oregon.

I first met Bob in 1968 when he was a state legislator challenging Oregon's political powerhouse -- Wayne Morse.  Bob had just announced his candidacy, and I was lucky enough to get an appointment to interview him for my college radio show.

It was the start of an acquaintanceship that has lasted for years.  A couple of years later, I interviewed him in his senate office. 

After we were done with business, he told me something that has stuck with me ever since.  He said: "Steve, in politics there are no friends; only allies."

At the time, I was naive enough to believe it was one of the most cynical things I had ever heard.  I was soon to find out (as he would, as well) that it was true.

I am still something of an idealist.  But the years have knocked off a number of the edges -- to be replaced by a patina of realism.

American presidents like to think they are the doves in the pope's little morality play -- that they can control international affairs.  Try telling that to President Obama, who just months ago was drawing red lines in Syria and threatening the removal of the Assad regime.  And who now finds American interests starting to line up closer with Syria's in a hope to try to get something out of Iran.

But a President Romney would probably being taking a similar path.  Just as a President Gore would have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after 11 September 2001.  All because American interests in those circumstances afforded very little flexibility.

In truth, presidents more often than not are the sea gull or the crow.  It is the nature of politics.  And that may not be a bad thing.

Now that I have lived almost 50 more years, I think Bob had it only partly correct.  In politics, there may be no friends.  But, there are times when there are no allies, either.

Monday, January 27, 2014

the winds of charity

Winter is the kindest months of all.  At least, here on the Costalegre.

All of the organizations that want to address a problem in Mexico has a narrow window to seduce northerners into loosening their billfolds.  Education for Indian children.  Food for the poor.  Sterilization for street dogs.  Diapers for unwed mothers.  Buildings for local schools.  Vouchers to authorize cats and dogs to live together.

Yesterday it was Rotary's turn to gather the pesos of charity. 

For the 7th year in a row, the local Rotary put on a rather unique fund raiser.  Restaurants and individuals are invited to whip up their best chili (and salsa).  The local community then buys tickets to test the wares and vote for the best chili and salsa in both amateur and professional categories.

Of course, it is really a way for people to get together, have some fun, and drop money in the pot for the good causes Rotary is known for around the world.  Last week I helped deliver school supplies to students in the surrounding villages.  At least two of the schools had buildings built through the efforts of Rotary.

Even though I attended the last two cook-offs, I didn't try the chili.  The line to buy scrip was too long.  I shot a few scenes and boogied.

This year I arrived early enough to buy tickets -- and to sample five entries.  That is, before the good chili ran out.  People are willing to donate money.  But they are also bound and determined to get their money's worth in food.

The chili was generally mediocre.  Some better than others.  But the food was just the mechanism to get people together to have fun.  And fun we had.

I did not ask these women what their "Four Aces" sign meant.  I simply assumed they were members of a retired dance hall gals society.

And these three beauties masqueraded as "amateur."  At least, that is what their sign says.  Dressed in those outfits, that is not the noun that pops to mind.

But it was all in good fun.  And fun it was.  I left early in the afternoon, but the music and dancing were scheduled to last into the evening.

I am glad I took the time this year to partake in both the food and the frivolity.  The dance hall gals will need to wait for another time.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

moving to mexico -- a few customs

I am part of my neighborhood.  After four years.

Earlier last week, Lupe, the young woman who lives across from me, invited me to attend a graduation party for her son, Alix.  He was graduating from high school, and they wanted to be part of the fiesta in the street in front of my house.  There would be food.

My Spanish is not very good.  But I understood the basic elements.  I was honored that they invited me.  Alix pointed out that I was generous enough to loan a tire iron to them when I first moved in  (friendly doors).  I had almost forgotten.  Neither he nor his family had.

I told them, of course, I would attend.  It was set on Saturday at 3 PM.

On Thursday night, I attended another of our cross-cultural classes at the church.  An acquaintance, Linda, was talking about some cultural opportunities in our own neighborhoods when she mentioned the institution of padrino and madrina.  What we would call godparents.

But it is more than that.  Mexicans love lavish parties.  But they have few resources themselves to put on weddings or 15th coming-out birthday parties or graduation parties. 

So, people are often asked to be the padrino of the full party -- or, more often, a portion of the party.  And, of course, pay for it with their own funds.  Similar to a potluck on steroids.

As I listened to Linda, I realized my spotty Spanish may have committed me to be a sponsor of the graduation celebration.  If not the whole thing, at least the food.  After all, Lupe had specifically mentioned the food.  And, if I had, I was fine with it.

I know the word "padrino."  But I could have easily missed it in Lupe's invitation.

I wanted to catch her before the party.  When I left my place to look at houses in Barra de Navidad, she was not home.  But her mother had started hosing water onto our street to keep the dust down.

By the time I returned, it was well after 3 -- when the party was scheduled to start.  That did not bother me.  It was a Mexican party.  Who would be there on time?

When I headed to my gate, I noted there was a canopy spanning the street with a lot of white chairs.  And in the chairs, a lot of people whose hair was as white as their skin.  Apparently, they had all arrived at 3 for the party.

I found Lupe.  Greeted her and her son and her mother.  And started working my way around the crowd as if I were running for city councilman.

I learned that custom the hard way.  A couple of years ago I was invited to the birthday party of a fellow who owns the restaurant around the corner from me.  When I arrived I said hello to him and sat down.  Amongst a group of people who spoke no English.  We just stared at one another. 

After staying what I thought was an appropriate 30 minutes, I said good-bye and left.

The Birthday Boy later told me that his family was surprised at my sudden departure -- without shaking everyone's hand and saying good-bye.  I didn't know that was the custom.  Having learned the lesson, I was going to put it to good use on Saturday.

In talking with Alix, I slipped him an envelope with some graduation money in it, and talked with him long enough to find out he wants to go to law school in Manzanillo -- at a private school -- to be a criminal defense attorney.  That gave us a good opportunity to talk about my experience in the field.

I then moved on to meet his cousins and nephews and nieces and aunt and godfather and godmother -- along with the northern contingent.  It turns out most of them stay at a local hotel where Lupe is a maid.  They were an interesting and diverse group -- with a sizable number who read Mexpatriate or heard my cross-cultural talk last week.  Or both.

That group stayed for about an hour and left.  Just as the Mexican guests were starting to arrive.

By the time I was ready to leave, I made the full circle again shaking hands, saying how pleased I was to meet them, and trying to be a good guest.  Through that process I discovered the party padrino was Alix's employer.  At least, I think that was the case.  Mere affability has not improved my Spanish skills.

As I sit here writing this, the music is still playing and I can hear people having a great time.

Even if I was not asked to bear the honor of being the padrino de fiesta, I am happy to get to know my neighbors a bit better.  My feet have been getting a bit itchy recently to move somewhere else.  This may be one more strand of a web to keep me in place.

It has been a good day.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

bills of a feather

I am accustomed to having new currency pop out of ATMs.

For the past decade, the United States Treasury has been trotting out the statement every boyfriend and husband dreads.  "You haven't said anything about my hair." 

And we know the response "Because it looks as lovely as ever" is the equivalent of gathering up the blankets and pillow for a lovely night of camping out on the couch.

Each year Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, or Grant would get a major makeover.  The bills, though, took on a look of savings bonds.  (For younger readers, go ask your mother.)  Benjamin Franklin finally had his turn in the engraving room last year.  To me, the new $100 bill looks like the ticket for an exclusive amusement park.

Most of the changes have been designed to counter counterfeiters.  And because counterfeiters are no respecters of borders, Mexico has been upgrading its bills since 2001, as well.

That means there are several versions of any note in circulation -- along with commemorative notes.  All of them legal tender.

But I was recently reminded that not every note can be spent at the local corner grocery.  A friend of mine, who traveled through Mexico in the 1980s, sent me a 1000 peso note he had retained from his travels.  Hoping I could use it.

I couldn't.  In 1993 Mexico devalued the peso and issued new coins and notes.  The old notes are worth no more than a bit of sentimental value -- a reminder there was once a day when chicken buses existed, rather than the sleek ETN buses with more comforts than a first class seat on Alaska Airlines.

I thought of John's gift this week.  I stopped at the Oxxo (the very same store where the robbers escaped in a boat) to buy a few bottles of Coke Zero.  The very indifferent young lady behind the counter handed me my change -- two 20 peso notes. 

But I noticed she took one of them off the bottom of her pile of 20s.  That is it at the top of the post.

Nothing about the bill looked similar to the other bill in my hand -- the series currently in circulation.  The color was different.  Juarez was in a different position.  And, even though I liked the art deco calligraphy, when it was combined with the eagle, the bill had a rather odd 1937 Berlin look to it.

I showed the bill to the clerk and asked her if it was still good.  She nodded her head "yes" in that surly way teenage girls have developed to ratify that all old people are simply a waste of rations.

So, off I went with it.

Now, I must confess, I started thinking about what I could do to foist it off on someone else.  I could leave it as a tip.  Or I could slip it into the offering plate at church.  But good taste (and my conscious) indicated that neither approach would help me ease on down the road.

Instead I took another tack.  I already had good material for a post -- especially, if I had been passed out-of-date money.  I decided to ask the cashier at a restaurant I frequent if the bill was still good.

Her response?  "It's old; like you.  But it's still good; like you."  Simply for being clever, I dropped it in her tip jar.

Here is the bottom line.  If you do not recognize something you receive in change (such as, the 20 peso coin I received yesterday), ask about it.  I suspect if I had pressed the point with Surly Girl, she would have given me another bill.

Or, if it is one of the smaller bills, hang on to it.  You can use it at the next show-and-tell when you get together with friends.

And if any of you do not like the new Benjamin Franklin bills, feel free to send them my way.  I could use them for this year's travel budget.

Come to think of it, that is another tale I should fill you in on.

Friday, January 24, 2014

the poor you will always have with you

"Why do rich Canadians dress like poor people?"

It was a question that puzzled my favorite waiter Armando.  I could not avoid the fact that he was staring at my clothes when he asked the question.

He meant "northerners."  To a lot of Mexicans in Melaque, all foreigners are Canadians.  And the odds, at 9 to 1, are in his favor.

I was just as puzzled, though.  "What do you mean?"

"Look around.  They all look like refugees.  And what's with those shorts on old men?  They look like giant diapers."

"Giant diapers."  Great phrase.  I told him I was going to steal it.

But the billowing drawers were just part of the tourist fashion scene.  Battered sandals.  Holey "wife-beaters."  Thin blouses that do nothing to disguise a life of emptied bread baskets.

Until Armando called my attention to the attire of my fellow foreigners, I had not noticed them.  Probably, because casual wear has simply become emblematic of northern culture.

Law offices look like country club locker rooms.  Male celebrities show up at events attired in what looks like the Homeless Couture collection at K-Mart.  And people shop at Safeway in outfits just this side of Lady Godiva -- or Lady Gaga, if there is any difference.

I reminded Armando that this is a beach town.  A beach town with incredibly hot weather.  We should probably be thankful that foreigners wear as much as they do.  The alternative would put the kibosh on the restaurant trade.

My argument was immediately undercut  when a 70ish guy walked by without a shirt -- reflecting enough glare off of his white skin that several NSA satellites were momentarily blinded.

Of course, Armando and I were looking through completely different cultural eyes.  Mexicans do not believe the simple fact of being at the beach gives you license to dress -- well, let's be polite and call it "casually."

The restaurant where he works was filled with an equal number of Mexicans and foreigners.  The Mexican men were dressed in long pants and polo shirts; the women in stylish dresses.  They looked as if they had just stepped out of a L.L. Bean catalog.

My fellow foreigners?  Well, I already told you.

And that is the difference in culture.  Canadians and Americans feel no social qualm about heading to dinner in the same clothes they wear to clean up their garden.

Mexicans dress as northerners dressed about fifty years ago.  Form matters a lot.  Just ask my mother.  She would man the Mexican ramparts on this issue.

Is there a correct answer here?  Not one that matters.  Or, at least, not one that is going to happen anytime soon.  Foreigners will continue to dress as they choose, and Mexicans will continue to look at us as if we are indulged children.

And that is OK.  Life is a bit too good here to be worrying about being pulled over by the fashion police.

My answer to Armando?  We dress like poor people because we are a free people who enjoy our freedom.

I knew I could weave a thread of libertarianism in there somewhere.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

moving to mexico -- check the sewer and water

When I started scouting in Mexico for property in 2007, I was looking for a compound where my brother, his wife, my mother, and I could live.  I was on a buying mission.

As you know, I am not a planner.  But when it comes to dumping a lot of money merely to buy my own piece of dirt, I like to, at least, know the pertinent questions to ask.

So, I read every book I could find on retiring in Mexico.  And what to look for in purchasing property once I chose where I wanted to live.

I quickly discovered Mexico is filled with enough property landmines to make Bosnia look like a children's playground.  If you come from most western countries, you assume that each piece of property is precisely delineated with its own recorded deed.  We think of real property the same way the Westminster Kennel Club thinks of a golden retriever.

Forget it.  Mexican property has a far different heritage.  It is a conquered land where the Spanish attempted to superimpose a proto-feudal title system on a preexisting Indian concept of property ownership.

That hodgepodge was then subjected to over a hundred years of war where any piece of property could morph overnight into someone else's traditional heritage. 

It's ejido.  Now, it belongs to the Roman church.  Now, it belongs to that Indian farmer.  Now, it belongs to the hacienda owner.  Wait a second, he's dead.  It's ejido -- and 437 family members have an undivided unequal interest in it.  Of course, there is the claim that the wife of the former governor has on the thousands of hectares that surround the tiny lot in which you are interested.

I knew all of this when I headed south with a five page list of questions.  It was a bit like my own auto-da-fé.  After all, Mexico was subjected to the niceties of the Spanish inquisition.

I would pelt each realtor with my 126 questions.  In most instances, I already knew a few of the answers.  If you are trying to regularize land through the La Manzanillo ejido, your children may see the results of your efforts, instead of you.  In the Melaque area, pick Villa Obregon for a quick switch in ownership.

Or you can pick a large neighborhood in Barra de Navidad where the lots had been transferred out of ejido ownership in a big block.  And that is exactly where I started looking.  Everything seemed so easy.  At least, from the title standpoint.

I looked at several houses in 2007.  And asked my questions.

Two of the answers caught my attention.  "Is there a neighborhood Association?"  "Yes. It's very active.  It takes care of everything for about $20 a year."

"Are there any problems with the water or sewer systems?"  "No.  All of that is included in your homeowner association fee."

My "Really!" must have sounded a bit incredulous.  But she reassured me it was a good deal -- even though there were some negotiations going on to modify the arrangement.  But they were moving right along.

There was something about both answers that made me feel very uneasy.  And because I was already leaning toward renting, I dropped the purchase idea.

About two years ago, I heard that there were rumors concerning the water and sewer arrangement in the neighborhood -- questions that arose when raw sewer started bubbling up into the streets. 

I thought it might be an interesting post.  But, when I talked with a realtor acquaintance, she assured me there was no story to tell.

It turns out, she was wrong.  There is a story to tell.  And it is causing problems for the people who live in the neighborhood.

Here it is.  The developers of the lots included a home owner association requirement in each deed when the lots were sold.  But there never was an operating association. 

The developer collected the fee and then paid for neighborhood services of garbage, street lights, sewer, and water.  The sewer is a separate system from the rest of Barra de Navidad.  And the water comes from privately-owned wells.

For over thirty years, the developer has been negotiating to have the "county" take over the services.  The residents would then pay the same as other property owners do in Barra.  One point on which they cannot agree is where the water for the neighborhood should come from.

The developer had had enough this year (after incurring almost $900,000 Mx in debt for the services) and threatened to not pay the electricity bill for February.  No electricity would mean no pumps for either water or the sewer.

That caught the neighborhood's attention.  There have been a series of meetings, including one yesterday with the developers and the president of the "county."

The president should get an award for his political skills.  He had people applauding sentences that expressed views they opposed.  I am convinced they did not fully understand him.

Most of the people at the meeting are opposed to forming a new legal entity (a homeowners' association) for numerous reasons that I fully understand.  They want to hook up to the city's water and sewer -- and pay the same rates as their neighbors.  Of course, there is that problematic water source issue.

If I understood the president correctly, he has several non-negotiable conditions.

  • He "insists" (his word -- and a rather emphatic one for a Mexican politician who avoids forceful verbs) that the neighborhood form a neighborhood association.
  • That association needs to be established under Mexican law (a process he described as being rather easy).
  • The residents would then need to determine how to pay for services for the current year -- effectively asking for an off-cycle payment.
  • When that is done, he claims to be more than "happy to do what you want me to do" (a phrase that a lot of people seemed to believe he was not really serious about his primary point -- the one on which he "insisted").
The good news was that the water and sewer will continue after 1 February -- the original drop dead date.  And negotiations would proceed when there was a legal entity, a homeowners association, with which he could negotiate.

Of course, I knew none of this when I decided not to buy in 2007.  All I knew was something did not seem quite right with the answers of the realtor.  And I am willing to bet this same conversation will be going on for several more years. 

All of that adds another layer of worry for people who are trying to sell their homes.  These are not the type of stories that make people feel confident about trading a handful of cash for a lot of uncertainty.

And that brings me to a point a local realtor told me when I started looking at buying property around here. 

"If you cannot tell yourself you would feel comfortable to lose the purchase price of your house, the coast of Mexico may not be where you want to buy.  Being a local homeowner is not for sissies."

I wouldn't have put it that bluntly.  But, after listening to what I have heard about sewer and water this past month, he does have a point.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

i'll have a coke, a torta -- and all the pesos in your till

Mexico exports a lot of things north.  And a lot of exchanges come south.  Some of them cultural.

I have been waiting for one north-of-the-Rio-Bravo trend to arrive in our little fishing village.  And it finally arrived. 

Armed robbery of convenience stores.  And its cousin -- the gas station holdup.

You know the drill.  You need just a bit of money to pay for that next hit of meth or to make the monthly payment to your local loan shark on that fancy new F-150 you just bought.

So, what do you do?  You grab your handgun and head down to the 7-11 to make a withdrawal.  At least, that is what you do if you live in Chicago or Toronto.

I do not know about the rest of Mexico.  But here in Melaque, convenience stores seemed as safe as nuns.

No more.  According to our local news blog (Canal 235), six masked and armed men held up an Oxxo (our local version of a 7-11) and the associated gas station at 2 AM on 2 January. 

The haul?  About 75,000 pesos (about $5,600 US) from the store -- and "other objects" from store patrons.

Then, on 4 January at 4:30 AM, two men dressed in blacked (I would be looking for a local Bob Fosse concert) carrying handguns robbed an Oxxo in the center of Melaque.  Off they went with 20,000 pesos (about $1,500 US) from the store, and the cell phones and wallets of customers who happened to be in the store during the early morning hours of a Saturday.  (Well, we are a beach town.)

The second robbery had an interesting twist.  The robbers escaped in a boat across Navidad Bay.  The news tells us the police arrested an accomplice in the neighboring village of Barra de Navidad.  But there was no news on what happened to the two robbers.

Interestingly, neither of these robberies showed on our local expatriate-tourist message board.  I found that a bit odd.  If a northerner's laptop goes missing, the board usually lights up with suggestions ranging from electrifying door knobs to installing trap guns.

Maybe we are so accustomed to hearing about convenience store robberies up north, they simply do not register on the fear meter.

That may be just as well.  It is the mature way to react to the situation.  As far as I know, I have never been afraid of visiting Vancouver merely because their convenience stores are convenient sites for robberies.  On the other hand, I would not hang out in one after midnight, either.

Given the choice, though, I would have preferred skipping this little piece of cultural exchange.  And, if I had a vote in the matter, I would just as soon that ATM express kidnappings stay out of our little beach community.

We may not have to worry about that,though.  Our ATMs are so temperamental, it would not be a very profitable venture for The Bad Guys.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

clio takes a holiday

Now and then, the writing well runs dry.  Or, at least, the flow diminishes to a trickle.

That is where I find myself right now.  And I am not talking about writer's block.  I have plenty of potential material.  I am just not in the mood of packaging it into an essay.

If I were in a journal mood, I could tell you about yesterday's trip to four area schools with the church's community service committee.  To deliver school supplies to students, and teaching aids to -- well, teachers.

Even though it is a project that means a lot to me (Mexico's education system needs a serious overhaul -- especially in its rural areas), I also know that education without jobs runs the risk of pouring money into a leaky bucket. 

And Latin America has already been through that cycle -- where well-educated students repeatedly assisted populists in toppling governments.  The results?  Revolving governments.  No growth.  No jobs.

Or I could tell you about the little house in Villa Obregon that I looked at yesterday.  Once again, opening Steve's never-ending battle between the forces of renting and ownership.  And we have all been down that road before.  It always ends in me putting off the decision for another year or two.

Then there is the related story about a neighborhood in Barra de Navidad that may be without sewer and water services if a deal cannot be struck between the developer and the municipality.  The fact that discussions have been under way for 30 years has a way of taking the edge off of the story's urgency.

So, I won't write about any of those tales.

What I will give you is fungus.  Well, a photograph of fungus.

I have watched this rather odd nodule grow over the past month.  At one point, I decided I would try to do with photography what Claude Monet accomplished by painting the changing light on the fa
çade of the Cathedral at Rouen.  You can tell that my little Magritte experiment with clouds on the pond has morphed into hubris.

But I never got around to it.  The fungus grew.  Changed colors.  And the light moved across its face every day.  My camera remained snapped in its holster.

Yesterday, I took my first shot.  While I hovered around my rather tiny model, the gardener stood and just stared at me.  I undoubtedly provide him plenty of bemusing moments.  This was just another.

As I snapped and snapped, he told me it was just fungus -- in the tone of voice you use to convince the wild-eyed maniac in your path to put down the machete.  He probably thought I was convinced I had discovered some new wonder of the world.

And it was.  To me.  As far as I know, it could have been a rare white truffle just waiting for a s
auté pan filled with butter and garlic.

I wandered out later in the afternoon for another shooting session.  Only to discover my subject was gone.  But you probably already guessed that.  I found it a few feet away.  Uprooted and ready for the lawn garbage.

Thus is art strangled in its cradle.  Or maybe I was just saved from boring all of you for a few days with my fungus shots.

If any of you wish to thank my gardener, I will pass on your blessings.


Monday, January 20, 2014

the woven word

I have several acquaintances who are folk art collectors -- both here and in The States.

To visit their home is to be transported onto a Shaker furniture showroom floor or into the parlor of a grandmother who has a tin, pottery, and clay fetish.

I must have missed the folk art gene when God was mixing up my DNA batter.  Some of it strikes me as interesting -- especially a few pieces from Michoacán (morelia mordidas).  But none of them are going to show up in my house.  Even if I did not have the Escape rule.

Yesterday I was briefing an acquaintance on my upcoming trip to Oaxaca.  She told me I needed to take an extra suitcase along to bring back all of the folk art I could not do without -- especially the woven pieces.

She doesn't know me very well.  I could tell that when she repeatedly used the word "magic."  In my world, "magic" is the equivalent of saying: "There is no logical reason why I feel the way I do, and I am embarrassed to think it might be gas."

But I am an actor.  I know what it means to get in the mood.

So, yesterday afternoon as I was folding up the laundry, I noticed a folk art installation in my own courtyard.  Isn't that just the way it is?  Art is happening all around us.

And next to my new-found art was the inevitable description written by the curator.  Where the word becomes the art.
"The show disobeys a universal principle of logic to introduce a dialectical order of things, productively reconciling two essentially different entities.  The architecture complicates the notion of specificity and expands in other directions, permitting two spacial extensions to merge or mix in a single phenomenological work."

I couldn't have said it better myself.  Especially, knowing that only I would see those two essentially different entities being reconciled right before my flat world perspective.

And who says contemporary art has become just plain silly?

Note -- I have plagiarized the description from an art show currently on display at the Jumex Museum in Mexico City.  My attendance is not required.

If you have not yet read Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

sign me up -- again and again and again

If blogs serve no other purpose, they are perfect tools for confession.  And confess I will.

When I moved south to Mexico, I vowed that I would escape my life as a serial volunteer.  By nature, I am a joiner.

In Oregon, I was a member (and chairman) of our local Salvation Army advisory board; member of my church board; volunteer worker and legal adviser to a political party; Sunday school teacher; pro bono legal volunteer; guest speaker and fundraiser for several organizations; board member of a political action committee; leader for a small group Bible study group; board member of our neighborhood association.

All of that while working full time.  I knew when I retired that the 40 to 60 hours a week I devoted to work would quickly morph into full-time voluntarism.

In a perfect world, there would have been nothing wrong with that.  I found a good deal of pleasure in each of those pursuits.  But doing nothing but volunteer work was not my idea of retirement.

So, I did what I do best.  I ran away.  To Mexico.

Now, that is not entirely fair.  I moved to Mexico because I wanted a life of adventure -- to escape my life of comfort.  You have heard the phrase before.  I wanted to get up each morning and not have any idea how I was going to get through the day.  But, I also knew what I was leaving behind.

Most of you know this blog was not always called "mexpatriate."  It was once known as "same life -- new location."

In picking the first title, I had read several comments on Mexican message boards from people who were convinced that moving to Mexico would resolve all of their life failures north of the Rio Bravo.  That they would be loved and have a completely new life in Mexico -- obliterating their lives of disappointment and failure in Canada and The States.

Well, it was not going to happen.  And I knew that.  My life -- who I am -- would be packed up in my Escape right next to my laptop and cookware.

But I did manage to run away from being a volunteer.  Well, for about six months.  Then, I volunteered to teach a Bible study course here in Melaque.  If I recall correctly, if was merely for a few weeks.  But once bitten, I started volunteering for more tasks.

Cleaning up the andador around the laguna where I live.  Church board member.  Occasional Sunday service leader in the summer.  Photographer for fundraising events.  And, of course, one of my favorites -- the Indian school.

I have written several posts about the place:  kidding around; love enough to share; party on; the gift of the littlest magi; feliz navidad.  But I have never talked about the overall program.  I don't think.

Despite all of the talk about Melaque as a tourist destination, that is not where the area makes its money.  Melaque services the surrounding agricultural community.  Just like my former hometown -- Salem.

The very nature of agriculture requires seasonal workers.  In our community, they are migrant works.  Mainly Mixteco Indians from the state of Guerrero and Chiapas.

When the workers head north, they bring their families with them.  Because the full family often works in harvesting or planting.  They work as if the farm was their own.

That means that they need to find all of the necessities of life while they are here.  Shelter.  Water.  Food.  It is not unusual to see full families living under tarps in tree groves.

About six years, my physician, Dra. Rosa, took steps to help change those conditions.  She was concerned about finding housing and providing medical care.  But, most importantly, she wanted the children to have access to something they could not have in the fields -- a formal education.

Through her efforts, the government provided a grant that resulted in three buildings: a clinic, housing for sixteen families, and school rooms with an attached kitchen. 

The most difficult task was making the school work.  The small core of volunteers had to go out into the fields to convince the children to come to the school after they worked a full day in the fields.  And teachers had to be recruited who often needed to teach the children how to speak Spanish to allow them to understand their other classes.

It all fell together.  Every time I visit the place, the intensity of the children strikes me.  They want to learn.  A friend told me a story of a young Mixteco boy who was proud that he knew arithmetic better than a Mexican boy he knew in the local village.

The school provides something that these children and families would not otherwise have while they are working in our area -- hope that tomorrow can be better than it is today.  That they can become part of the definition of Mexican.

Today, the women and a few men, who volunteer their time to make this little community work, met to discuss this year's projects.  They are few.  And the needs are many.

None of it will get done unless other hands are found to help make a better future for these children.

For those of you who live in this area, take a look at the project list.  There is undoubtedly something you can do to help.

If you cannot get the link to work, you can contact one of the following:

And me?  I have learned a rather important lesson about myself.

Trying to run away from what I truly enjoy is a bit counter-productive.  I often look around and wonder about the good deeds I see being done.  Is it out of white liberal guilt?  Paternalism?  Trying to get those last few good deeds on the books before shuffling off to punch in at the pearly gates?

And the answer is -- it is none of my business why other people do what they do.  Assaying the motives of others is a fool's game.

Sitting in that upper room yesterday made me happy to share life with a group of people who give their time, their money, their love to a worthy cause.  And that is all I need to know.

Why don't you join them?  I promise you will never be the same again.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

amazing grace

I can't remember exactly what I was doing.  Probably reading or writing.  I tend to do a lot of both.

Whatever it was, I glanced up to see the stone statuette of an Indian woman holding a fish on her lap.  She has squatted in my garden for as long as I have lived here.  Years before that, I suspect.

What surprised me is that I could see her as a three-dimensional object.  She had depth.

For almost all of you, that statement should be about as shocking as me saying, on a clear day, the sky is blue.  But, just as a few of you are blind to the color blue in the sky, I cannot not see in three dimensions. 

I have no depth perception.  Zero.  Or, at least, I had none.  And that is this story.

I was 22 before I realized most people see the world in 3-D.  They can actually see a ball coming at them.  Objects are either near or far.

Not for me.  The world may as well be painted on a scrim at the front of a stage.  Nothing closer.  Nothing further away.  Merely the illusion of perspective.

In 1971, I took the bus to McChord Air Force Base for my flight physical.  At the time, the Air Force was interesting only in commissioning pilots or navigators.  If I failed the test, I could be neither, and I would have been as welcome as Jane Fonda at a Medal of Honor convention.

The physical was going extremely well.  I had passed all of the pokes and probes that seem to thrill doctors.  My eyes were rated better than 20/20.  And then came the depth perception test.

I managed to fail every block.  To me, even though one of the four circles was supposed to look as it it was suspended above the others, all I saw were four happy "o"s happily lined up as if they were on parade.

The guy in charge of the examination pulled out the blocks, re-sorted them, looked at them himself, and asked me to take the test again.  Not one was suspended as far as I could see.

We tangoed three or four more times.  Same result.  He told me that had never happened before. 

His conclusion?  Something must be wrong with the machine -- and passed me.  I learned a lot about government in my brief encounter.

But I now knew why I had trouble with eye-hand coordination.  My eyes were not sending proper information to my hands.

I later learned that loss of depth perception can happen if a child suffers a head injury at a young age.  Usually, at age three or before.

Despite what we were told in fifth grade science, we do not have depth perception because our eyes are stereoscopic.  That is merely data transferred to the brain.  Up there amongst all of that squishy yellow stuff, our brain makes sense of the information and translates it into a very complex three-dimensional image.  In this case, it is all in our heads.

In my case, the head trauma was at 4.  I told you this tale already in tres desperados, but I am in a mood to repeat myself.
The year was 1953.  My parents owned a tire shop in Myrtle Point, and my mother was driving Dad's pickup, on an errand to retrieve an air compressor, along a narrow windy road bordering the Coquille River.  My brother, then two, was on the floor playing with a flashlight.  I was sitting on the seat.

As we were rounding a spot in the road known as Dead Man's Curve (western place names actually mean something), my brother dropped the flashlight on the driver's side of the floor and put his innocent, little hand on the accelerator.

The truck operated exactly as engineered and hurtled off the road, over a cliff, and lodged in a copse of trees.  That is, the truck lodged, along with my mother in the cab.  But the air compressor, tires, and two young boys turned into an Isaac Newton experiment.

My brother ended up on some boulders along the side of the river with a broken right leg.  I ended up in the river with a fractured skull.  The flow of the river was about to pull me away from a rock just as our mechanic, who was following us in his vehicle, grabbed me.

Earlier this week, while contemplating my new-found depth perception (that tends to come and go for no particular reason), I thought about the man who saved my life.  I had even forgotten his name.

My mother reminded me his name was Dale.  But neither of us could recall a last name.

Something, huh?  A man puts his life in danger to save mine, and I do not know anything about him other than his first name and his job.  And absolutely nothing about what happened to him after his noble deed.

I suspect he is no longer alive.  But it does not change the fact that I am grateful for his bravery.  Because he chose to be heroic, I have lived a blessed life.

At the end of Saving Private Ryan, while Captain Miller is dying, he tells Private Ryan, because of the number of people who have died to save his life: "
James ... earn this.  Earn it."

I doubt that it is ever posible for any of us to earn what others have sacrificed or done on our behalf.  Parents.  Teachers.  Pastors.  Friends.  Rescuers whose names we cannot now recall.

The best we can do is to accept the grace we are given.  And to not cheapen what has been done out of love.

Wherever you are, Dale, I thank you.